Stewart Indian School documentary debuts in Reno, an interview with director JoAnne Peden

by Kristin Simons

The Stewart Indian School Administration Building - image - Stewart Indian School Cultural Center and Museum, by permission.

Carson City – JoAnne Peden is a documentary filmmaker who has an interest in covering Native American history. “Stewart Indian School: Home of the Braves,” is Peden’s latest documentary covering Native American history after having made eight previous documentaries. The Stewart Indian School is located in Carson City and first opened its doors in 1890 and closed in 1980.  The Stewart Indian School film debuted at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno on December 17.

Hear an audio report from Kristin Simons …

“I’m a documentary film maker and Stewart drew my attention because of the beautiful campus, I knew the director Sherry Rupert of the Nevada Indian Commission,” Peden said. “I served on their advisory board for several years. I got a small grant I received from the Nevada Humanities to begin interviewing alumni  and that’s how it started.”

Peden said this project has been in the works for 12 years. Aside from the filming, Peden also had a hand in helping Stewart Indian School in other ways while trying to move this documentary forward.

“About, I’d say almost 12 years. We shot a lot of footage, arranged to have the first Nevada Day parade again. For Stewart they hadn’t had it for many years and I just- I covered a lot of things, but never could get the financing to edit the whole thing together, which is the most extensive work and expensive work. And then the Stewart Indian Schools preservation alliance raised the funds to allow that editing to go forward.”

The film, Peden said, is to give people a look at how the United States has treated Native Americans and their culture in the past.

“My editor and I decided to give historic background to federal policy dealing with Indians. It used to be called the, “Indian problem,” by the government and by White people. What to do with all these Indians that were here when they first came? And assimilation became the main focus, but also educating natives and taking them away from their homes and their culture, so they would be less like Indians. The founder of Carlisle Indian School, Colonel Henry Pratt said the purpose was to, ‘take the Indian out of the man.’”

The Stewart Indian School Auditorium – image – Stewart Indian School Cultural Center and Museum, by permission.

Peden said Stewart Indian School had some similarities to many other past boarding schools in the United States that took Native American children from their families, but Stewart was different in its own ways.

“By the time I had started working on this project of course Stewart was not so strict.  The school didn’t have some of the problems other schools did, but they were still-the students were still rounded up by Stewart officials and taken to the school, often without parents knowledge and consent.You will see that in the documentary.”

After making eight documentaries, some might wonder if Peden has always been drawn to this topic. According to Peden it was after reading, “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” that opened her eyes to the plight of Native Americans in the United States.

“I saw the need. In fact, when, “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” first came out, by Dee Brown, I read that book having had no idea what happened the experience of Native Americans and what was the done to them. And I resolved to try to do something about it and wound up making documentaries here with natives in the Great Basin so that  people could tell their own stories about what happened.”

The Stewart Indian School gym – image – Stewart Indian School Cultural Center and Museum, by permission.

Peden said something we can learn from this film and history is that people weren’t treated well at these schools and you can still see the effect it had on Native American communities.

“Federal policy deals with people often without regarding them as individuals, without feelings and there was terrible suffering that went on because of the boarding school policy.. Children from those schools didn’t know how to nurture as parents because they had not been and so there were generations that were damaged from the boarding school, the experiences all across the country. And Stewart was, I think, somewhat exceptional in its lack of cruelty toward students, but I’ve heard many stories from other schools where there was a lot of cruelty to the children. They were regarded as savages.”

Peden is currently working on two more documentaries. One is based on Native American ranchers  in Duck Valley and the other Peden is keeping to herself for the time being.

If interested in learning more about the Stewart Indian School, Peden said at the Nevada State Museum there is a Stewart exhibit in the Under One Sky exhibit where’s there’s a kiosk that contains four interviews of alumni from the school. One of those alumni is Katie Fraser. Fraser was the first person Peden made a documentary with. Fraser attended the Stewart Indian School in 1900 around the age of eight. At the kiosk in her own voice, Fraser goes into detail about her experiences at Stewart Indian School.

More information can be found at stewartindianschool.com.